From the time of birth, parents place their child’s well-being as one of their top priorities. You pay attention to how they sleep, watching your infant breathe despite your own sleep-deprived eyes. At the first sign of a sniffle in your toddler, you encourage him to drink juice. As they go to school, you wonder how the germs in class from the other students will affect them.
However, you might not pay quite as much attention to your child’s emotional health. Statistics show that about one in five children and teens struggle with a mental health disorder. Of that number, only one in five receive treatment. Only in recent years has the American Academy of Pediatrics provided resources to children’s doctors to help them identity and treat these issues.
Communicating with Your Child
When it comes to emotional health, you can start by modeling effective communication skills.
- Talk with them about your feelings when you become angry, hurt or sad. Address these matters in appropriate ways without overwhelming them.
- Discuss emotional movies, such as the 2014 movie, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Book Thief” and similar films that deal with difficult topics. Talking about what they thought about the characters and how they might have handled various situations will help open the doors of communication on sensitive matters.
- Pay attention to their fears and gently probe for answers to find out why.
- Watch for any behavioral issues. For example, if your daughter’s teacher relates that she isn’t getting along with other students, address the matter with her.
- Look for emotions that seem out of character. Often, events occurring in the lives of classmates might affect your child. If you notice his behavior change, spend some extra time with him to find out what’s happening.
- Stay sensitive to your child. However, when you encourage her to talk with you, you need to model emotions that stay on an even keel. If a situation starts to escalate, remind them to step away from the situation, take deep breaths or go for a walk.
- When your child does open up about his feelings, don’t minimize them.
- Model strength and compassion. You do not want your child to develop a victim mentality. You want him to learn how to problem solve while remaining caring at the same time. This helps her develop resiliency and persistence that will carry her through the most difficult situations.
- As parents, we will make lots of mistakes in raising our children. Seek forgiveness when we wrong our children. Admit our mistakes and discuss their feelings and how we could have better handled the situation. Work to do better the next time.
- Look for outside support – As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We can’t do it all as parents. Find a relative, dear family friend or respected teacher for your child to talk to.
- Find professional help – As noted, about 20 percent of kids struggle with mental illness. If you suspect your child needs treatment, seek help sooner instead of later. Especially pay attention to signs of substance abuse, criminal behavior, eating disorders, violence toward others or suicidal thoughts or ideations.
- Take care of yourself – The airline stewardess will warn you to put on your own safety mask before helping your child. The same applies when it comes to emotional health. You can’t really take care of anyone else if you are struggling emotionally.
Connecting with Your Child’s Love Language
According to Dr. Gary Chapman, children and adults alike have one or more of five basic love languages. They need their love tank filled in order to connect effectively with you and others.
The love languages follow:
- Physical, non-sexual touch – This child loves being near you and enjoys hugs, pats, holding hands and massages.
- Acts of service – This child loves it when you do kind things for him, e.g., fix a favorite meal, do one of his chores, invite his friends over.
- Quality time – This child enjoys just hanging out with you at the mall, grocery story, in the family room or watching a movie. Uninterrupted attention means the world to this child.
- Words of encouragement – This child lights up whenever you speak kind and positive words to him.
- Gifts – This child loves it when you buy him gifts. Parents sometimes mistake this love language for selfishness, but he equates presents with love.
By paying attention to your child, you will notice what she responds to, which will help you identify her love language.
Model Emotional Responsibility
Model the importance of self-control. Each of us is responsible for how we respond to others. We show this when we keep our cool during traffic even when another driver cuts us off, when our server brings us the wrong order at the restaurant or when someone in public is just plain rude. Our children are watching and mimicking our behaviors—not our words—in these situations. To put it in clearer terms, they will do what we do and not what we say. If we do overreact, we need to own our behavior and do what we need to correct it.
As parents, we show our children how to manage their emotions in myriads a ways—stopping to give a homeless person a bottle of water and a kind way, giving the grocery store clerk that you see each week a quick hug, taking a meal to a friend who is struggling, babysitting older kids for a family with a newborn and other similar ways.
If you are frustrated about household issues and stressed about work, take a break when you come home instead of exploding. Then, ask to sit down and talk with the family about responsibilities and how you can work together as a team to take care of your home. Ask for the support that you need from others, such as a hug or a listening ear. This shows that you are human and not afraid to reach out when you need to.
You likely model emotional health to your child nearly every day whether or not you know it. Putting these tips into practice will help your troubled teen learn to be a healthy and emotionally balanced adult.